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September 17, 2018 | by  | in From the Archives |
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From the Archives

Did you know that Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and graham crackers were originally invented to discourage masturbation? The theory went that your libido, physiology, and diet were all inextricably linked. Rich or spicy foods made you horny, so by the same token, eating bland foods made it easier to resist your disgusting sexual urges. Following this logic, encouraging to masses to start their day with a frigid bowl of corn flakes seemed a worthwhile public health campaign.
I like that anecdote a lot. It illustrates the complexity of the history of sexuality, which exists at the border where histories of morality, psychology, and public health intersect. Unravelling this Gordian Knot from the present into the past can help to give some idea of where our assumptions about sexuality and sexual morals come from – but it’s complex.
A useful point of connection across these topics is the construction of heterosexuality and the nuclear family unit as “the norm”, the basic fabric from which Western democracies are spun. Settler governments in the Dominions of the British Empire (New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and Canada) expended great efforts to engineer a nation-state founded on healthy white families. The essential utility of the family as a site of nation-building informed a variety of public policy campaigns, including those regarding health and sexual education.
This is well demonstrated in a Salient article from 1964, delightfully titled “Sexual ‘Anarchy’ Unwise?” The article took the form of a statement from the recently established Student Health Services, in response to a query from a Salient journalist about the availability of the contraceptive pill. The pill was available by prescription in New Zealand from 1961, but only to married women until the early 1970s. The response from Student Health was clear:

“There are a small number of people in our community, and outside the university, who believe that a greater degree of sexual freedom will make for more satisfying living. This they firmly believe, and demand the “pill”. But when we face all the issues we must appreciate that the family is the basic unit of our society, and any measure which would encourage promiscuity, would help only to annihilate this basic unit. Only those who are married with children, can appreciate the full value of this essential unit.

The sexual anarchists have few values and few responsibilities. Would we be wise in looking to them for assurance and guidance. The student health doctors consider it is outside their province to set up a birth control centre at this university.”

Unchecked sexual agency was constructed as not only immoral and sexually deviant, but also as a genuine threat to the integrity of society. The appeal to order over anarchy gives an idea of how high and how real the stakes seemed to the guardians of sexual, moral, and public health.
We’ve come a long way in providing access to contraception, and in breaking down moral hang-ups about sex for pleasure. You’re able to scoop up free condoms by the handful from the same Student Health Service which once refused to encourage promiscuity.
But attitudes persist. I’ve spoken with friends whose very standard requests for a prescription for the pill were met with pursed lips, furrowed brows, and condescension. A lot of people (including me) still don’t have the vocabulary to talk about sex frankly but with sensitivity. The contradicting socio-sexual pressures placed on men and women are harmful to everyone, but particularly women.
These aren’t new issues. They are the result of historical and contemporary attitudes towards morality, gender, sexuality, and any number of other factors too complicated to cover in 600 words.
Sometimes it seems like they begin to unwind at a broad level, with big and important movements like #MeToo. But it goes without saying that these issues are also deeply personal – pulling at the threads of where your own attitudes lie towards sex and sexuality is just as important.

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